From Womb to Tomb: Why Christ-followers Should Oppose Capital Punishment

Joseph Rudolph Wood was executed last week. It took him over two hours to die because of the incompetence of the mechanism used to kill him, in this case lethal injection.

I put this up on Facebook, and it sparked a bit of a debate about the issue of capital punishment from a Christian perspective. So this post is a response to some of the issues raised on that thread. It’s not an attempt at an academic or exhaustive essay. But I hope that some people find it helpful in thinking through some of the issues associated with capital punishment.

Over the past week, I’ve just finished reading a book called ‘What Would Jesus Deconstruct?’ by John D. Caputo. It is definitely the case that people reading this blog will find much of what he says disagreeable, but I found it helpful for this discussion.

 

Thoughts on Capital Punishment 

I’d first like to address some of the arguments I’ve heard from Christians for capital punishment. These range from the respectable – e.g. John Piper referencing the Noahic Covenant from Genesis – to the frankly quite absurd, occasionally bordering on insane, arguments given by Andrew Tallman at Christianity.com.

I think these arguments all fail because they are what I call ‘proof-texting arguments.’ That is, they pick individual verses out of various different contexts in the Bible and then use them to support a particular idea, in this case capital punishment. These kinds of discussions get nowhere for me because it is just as easy for someone to come along, and pick another verse from the Bible to contradict the first argument. For example, I think it’s very easy to quote Jesus himself as saying, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would have been fighting,’ or ‘Turn the other cheek,’ as arguments against capital punishment.

Also, it’s easy to argue tit-for-tat. ‘Paul approved of capital punishment’ is one aforementioned argument. Did he? Or did he just accept it as an inevitable part of his culture in the same way as he did with slavery? Paul didn’t say, ‘Free all the slaves,’ because it was inconceivable at his time that this would happen. Maybe the same logic applies with capital punishment. Paul, no doubt, would have approved the abolition of the slave trade. Maybe he would have approved of the repeal of the death penalty.

Another argument, vis-à-vis John Piper, is that the Noahic Covenant includes an institution of capital punishment. The same could be said of the Mosaic Law. It must be admitted that there are times in Scripture (in the Old Testament albeit) that Yahweh approved of, and sanctioned, capital punishment. But again (and to be fair to Piper, he would almost certainly concede this point) it is very unclear from a basic hermeneutic understanding of Scripture that you can willy-nilly apply the Noahic Covenant or the Mosaic Law to a 21st Century, Western democracy like the UK without going very badly wrong indeed.

These covenants were not given to us. They were given to Noah and the Jews in the Wilderness respectively. That’s not to say they don’t have good things to say. But it is not as simple as just applying them straight out of the page to our law courts, as anyone who has ever tried to eat shellfish will tell you.

What Would Jesus Do?

What does it mean to be a Christian? It simply means to be a Christ-follower. All Christ-followers agree that, whatever the Bible is about, difficult and sometimes strange book that it is, it is about Jesus. This is what Jesus taught the disciples on the Emmaus Road. And so, somehow, whatever we glean from the Bible must resemble him in some way. Otherwise I think we have simply misunderstood what we have read.

John Caputo uses the well-known phrase ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ as a springboard for his arguments. And it’s helped me to look beyond the fairly cheesy marketing of that phrase, and to actually think about that question seriously. What would Jesus do? Would he administer the fatal dose to the criminal? Or would he preach forgiveness and mercy? Would he gleefully exult on Facebook over the bombing of Palestine, as I have seen many Christians do over the past two weeks? Or would he weep in the streets over the death of the innocent?

As John Caputo writes, ‘We can use this question to put ourselves on the spot, to try to sensitize ourselves to the spirit of his life and teachings in the New Testament and then to employ as much good political, philosophical, and theological judgement as we can command in the present situation.’ P.96

I can’t develop this at length, but we know that Jesus was a man of peace, who preached a gospel of love, mercy, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. This self-sacrifice, at its heart, is non-violent. When his disciples sought to use violence, Christ stopped them every time. Every argument that a Christian uses in favour of capital punishment (barring the ridiculous arguments I referenced earlier from Andrew Tallman) comes from somewhere outside the ministry of Christ. There is no sensible argument from his ministry because his ministry is fundamentally a ministry of peace. And, therefore, to be consistent Christ-followers, Christians must fundamentally support a message of peace, which translates in almost every case to non-violence.

Writing on abortion, Caputo says, ‘Jesus was sharply critical of hypocrisy…In my view, it is hypocritical for Christians to oppose abortion while endorsing capital punishment and preemptive wars…The most consistent and sensible position in this regard is the “seamless garment” argument against violence of any stripe made by Cardinal Bernadine: the right to life spans the entire spectrum, and it includes not only fetuses but felons, not only friends but enemies, “from womb to tomb.” Christian witness requires a radical opposition to violence in all its forms and seeing the interconnectedness of such opposition.’ P.113-114

Caputo’s argument is much more nuanced than I’ve put here. But he says, in a nutshell, that you can’t just apply any law to any given situation because justice (which, in post-structuralist terms is the “event” itself) requires different laws at different times, and is always beyond law, so to speak. And so, Caputo says that, even though Jesus was a man of peace, that does not necessarily mean that all war or all capital punishment is wrong. For example, I find it quite reasonable to assume that, if the Second World War had not been fought then Nazis would have conquered Europe and killed all the Jews and goodness knows who else. In that sense it was almost certainly the right decision to fight against them and so, in a sense, the Second World War was justified.

But what Jesus’ ministry does mean is that these wars and killings must be approached with him in mind. They are always the lesser of two evils. They are always tragic, and never in line with the spirit of his life.

To apply this to our day and age (and this is the paragraph that actually matters), I personally can think of no good reason why capital punishment should happen in this country or in the USA. Neither country needs to execute criminals in order to keep other people safe or because they lack of resources. These criminals can be kept in jail for their whole lives without any need to execute them. The only reason that remains to execute criminals here or in the US seems to me to be a desire for vengeance, which, again, is not a very Christ-like principle, seeing as he prayed for the Father to forgive the ones who were crucifying him.

A final point, which may or may not be a good argument and may or may not be relevant. Most people are viscerally disgusted or disturbed by the sight of an execution. You only have to watch a film like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘A Short Film About Killing’ or Frank Darabont’s ‘The Green Mile’ to get some feeling of what it must be like to actually stand in a room with a man who is anticipating being fried in the electric chair, hung until he is dead, or even poisoned quietly. It just feels wrong. It feels pitiless and immeasurably cold-hearted. Every sinew of your being cries out for mercy. It is beyond the power of words to describe how awful it is even to watch a fictionalised account.

I might venture a guess that the reason it feels so wrong is because it is wrong. Christ would not approve of it, and neither should we.

Where would we be if God had poured out his righteous anger on us for our sins? Hasn’t Christ charged us to preach a gospel of love, forgiveness and repentance? And how will they repent if they have been executed?

Thanks for reading as always. Comments welcomed.

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Rowan Williams – ‘Ethics and Empathy’

6th June, University of Winchester

Last week I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the University of Winchester, given by Rowan Williams. I had no previous knowledge of the subject matter but I went just to hear him speak on his title ‘Ethics and Empathy.’ I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very interesting lecture, which was more ethical philosophy than theology, although the lecture naturally led towards a theological sequel. I found an audio recording from the University of Cambridge website, which appears to be exactly the same lecture, so if you would like to listen to it this is the link.

I will summarise it in three brief sections. I will just say here in a word of evaluation that I found it quite convincing, and on hearing this side of the conversation, I couldn’t object to very much of what Williams said.

Empathy is more popular than it used to be

Williams began by saying that the topic of empathy is in vogue, and lots of people are talking about it. He cited numerous examples of people claiming that empathy is essential to moral development, that to empathise well is in effect to be moral. Empathy cannot oppress another. If you feel another’s pain and suffering, or their need, then you will inevitably help that person, or act in a moral fashion.

He particularly interacted with ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ author Simon Baron-Cohen, who claims that ‘evil is empathy corrosion.’

Williams – ‘This is wrong’

Williams then went on to say that he disagrees with these statements for various different reasons. The broad reason that he gave is that ethics is a linguistic and cultural phenomenon, encompassing power, politics, religious faith and so in. In short, ethics is much more than simply whether or not one is able to empathise, or, in response to Baron-Cohen, empathy erosion is not the whole story of evil. Consider issues concerning the distribution of power on a geopolitical level, for example, how will empathy help us with that?

Or think about the example of a Ugandan militia: the leader has two prisoners who are relatives, and he forces one to execute the other. In this case the militia leader is able to perpetrate greater evil precisely because he can empathise with the pain it will cause to the first prisoner to execute a family member. Empathy leads to more moral evil, not less.

Or The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, who, precisely because he empathises with human beings’ sadness and grief at being free, will subjugate and enslave humanity. In the parable, the inquisitor is pictured as opposing a silent Christ-figure who, in contrast to the inquisitor, has come to bring freedom to mankind.

Edith Stein

Finally, Williams introduced us to Edith Stein, who wrote her PhD dissertation on empathy, to help us understand empathy better. For Stein, empathy is not about being able to feel exactly what another person feels. On the contrary, it is about a human being recognising his or her situatedness. That is, I am one person, who inhabits a particular perspective, and I do not understand what it is like to be another – not fully anyway. He gave the example of Cybil Faulty saying, ‘Oh I know,’ in response to the problems of others. The humour comes in that fact that she didn’t know, and that she was being insensitive to the person to whom she was speaking.

He summarised her definition of empathy as, ‘A failure to understand the limits of my point of view, resulting in two sets of knowing: an enhanced awareness of that environment and an indirect sense of some of what it might be like to experience the environment from that standpoint.’ In other words, empathy is less ‘I know,’ and more ‘I don’t know, but I can try to imagine, and that might give me an idea of what it might be like.’

I see where he is coming from when he says this, but I always thought that empathy meant that, in simple terms, you know how something feels, and so you can sympathise in a more direct way with the person who is experiencing that thing. I can’t empathise with what it feels like to give birth, but I could sympathise if I was in the delivery room with someone who was. I could empathise if I had given birth, because then I would know what it feels like, but I don’t, so I can’t.

Maybe I’m wrong about that, and my thinking needs readjusting. What do you think?

Sensing Jesus. One of the Great Books.

I’ve got a copy of the Bruised Reed by Sibbes, and on the back cover is a quotation by the great doctor Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It says that the book ‘…quietened, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me’. If ever there were a good reason to read a book that would surely be it.

It was a quote I thought about after I finished reading Sensing Jesus, particularly the last part: it healed me. I felt this as I was reading Zack Eswine’s book on pastoral ministry. I felt it healed a part of me that was hurting. Something that was out of place. Some way of thinking or feeling I didn’t even know was there, and it dug out of me and felt better. Like any operation, there was definitely pain involved. Reading the first hundred pages or so was even a little bit depressing, but I felt compelled to continue.

A friend gave this book to me. He said that a mutual acquaintance of great standing found it to be the best Christian book he’d ever read. I put it aside because I was reading an ancient tome, which to myself quietly I thought was important. Eswine’s book seemed trivial in comparison. The tome wasn’t healing me though.

Remembering Our Purpose

Remembering Our Purpose is a poem that begins the book (it is filled with poetry), and it is a central theme throughout. The first stanza summarises so much:

The place He gives us to inhabit.

The few things He gives us to do in that place.

The persons He invites us to know there.

These our days,

our lingering. 

Sweet balm to the weary soul of a man who has believed many of the lies he has been told. Eswine tells a story about how he sat down to write an article for a Christian magazine. He thought to himself that this might be the moment he hit the big time. This might be the moment he was made for, when he really achieved something for the kingdom.

This is the desire that haunts our souls, the part of us that is scared that, unless we achieve some kind of notoriety, or even celebrity in our own way, we’ll have failed, or we won’t have achieved everything God has for us (whatever that is supposed to mean).

For many of us, the thought that we should live our lives as an average, usual, or humdrum person or pastor has scared us for years. The churches and ministries I have served have likewise bathed in this phobia. 262

This misplaced longing manifests itself in so much that I have seen in contemporary evangelicalism. The most obvious place? The conversations we have with each other about the size of our churches or ministry. This is the way we so often determine success or failure. Worse than that, it is actually a way of feeling secure in ourselves. We end up using the people who have come as boasting-currency. We lose sight of what their needs are, or how to love them. We feel angry with the people who haven’t shown up because they have made us feel inadequate with their non-attendance.

We’re measuring something. But maybe it’s not the number of bums on seats.

What is our purpose? Eswine returns to Eden, where we see what we were always meant to do: love God, love people, and delight in the wonderful creation of God. When we bear this is mind, it becomes much clearer what our pastoral ministry priorities could be (as opposed to what they are):

1) God has given you to himself to surrender to and love. This means that to daily orient you life towards a moment-by-moment relationship with God is a great thing that brings glory to him. You needn’t be anywhere else than where you are, because Jesus is there too.

2) God has given you a handful of people that you are meant to love. This means you are meant for relationships with people…You needn’t become somebody else or overlook those people who are right in front of you. The Lord is at work here doing great things.

3) God will give you a place to inhabit, which means that you get to become attentive to what is there where you are. This means that to dwell knowledgeably and hospitably in and towards the places God gives you is to glorify him. God will give you a few things that he intends for you to do in your inhabited place and with those people. 35-6

Everywhere-for-all

A phrase used in the book. It’s easy to look over the horizon and to think that, when we’ve made it, we’ll be somewhere else. But what about the ordinary greatness (another Eswine phrase) that is possible here? If our lives are about loving God, people and delighting in his good creation, isn’t it time to start doing that now, in this place? Why will it be easier tomorrow, when we’re somewhere else, when possibly a few more people might know our names? Maybe we’ll be just as miserable and unfulfilled then as we are now. Maybe our whole lives will be over before we’ve actually started to enjoy them. Maybe we won’t love people the way we should. Maybe we won’t love God. Maybe we’ll simply miss his manifold goodness to us.

Sensing Jesus

A friend of mine said to me recently that he was thinking about chucking away his computer console because he has become convinced it was a waste of time for him to play games. (He later changed his mind.) But could we not have room in our theology for simply accepting and delighting in the thing that we enjoy as gift from God? Does it have produce some kind of immediately obvious spiritual fruit?

It seems to me that a great mistake we make as evangelicals is to lose the things that Eswine rightly celebrates: taste, touch, hearing, smell, sight. We think these things are unimportant, or at least not the main thing, and what’s actually important is having some kind of ‘spiritual’ experience. I think many of our souls are tired because of this. We can’t enjoy our lives because we feel guilty and unproductive.

We forget that God created the senses, and that he sanctified them ten thousand times ten thousand by incarnating Jesus himself in a human body.

Finally

This book is weighty, slow-going, and beautiful. It is not what I expected.

Those are a few of my thoughts anyway – sprayed around at random. It is a wonderful book, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.